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The Films of Karl Kels

Miryam Van Lier

Printed in MFJ No. 30/31 (Fall 1997) Deutschland/Interviews

To look at the films of Karl Kels is to discover anew the extraordinary potential of cinema as a visual language. Educated at the arts academy in Frankfurt, Kels soon chose a solitary path in developing his unique methods of filmmaking as he decided to direct, produce, shoot, and edit his films by himself. Wanting to be in full control of the creative process, he even develops his own films in a laboratory he built exclusively for this purpose. The result is film material of an exceptional quality, in color as well as in black and white.

Kels is interested in the unstaged world, in the 'real' if you like, yet studies the reality he finds in a way which questions both its authenticity and the fictional character of our perception of that same reality. He creates fiction himself, yet unmistakably draws from a situation he has no control over apart from the way he decides to film and edit it. Whereas more traditional filmmakers use all possible means to create a cinematic reality that, in its synthetic unity, eventually masks the separate elements it consists of, Kels is fascinated by the independent quality of those elements and in his hands they take on a new meaning. He sets himself limits in order to be able to bring this about.

Kels films the 'unstaged' world. He goes to a place, sets up his camera, observes, and, in so doing, anticipates some action or movement. He chooses a world which, by its very nature, would be hard to stage: haystacks in a field, a flock of starlings in the air, alcoholics on the street, rhinoceroses and hippopotamuses in the zoo. Most of the time he films at a fixed distance. He does not move his camera. Instead, either the anticipated movement appears only within the single shot (giving a wealthy sense of time to some of them despite their short duration) or movement is created in the film's sequences at the editing table. The immobility of the camera, which often takes a frontal position towards its subject, presents a constant frame and in this sense establishes a meaningful framework for much of his work. Through this immobility, every frame (and every part thereof) seems to be 'energized' in its natural composition, leaving none of its visual possibilities unused.

The filmmaker's interest focuses on the fragmentary and, more precisely, on the single frame as it, being the smallest filmic unit, contains a complete world in itself while remaining indivisible. His films are made out of very few shots, or even a single shot, yet often every single frame of each shot is used, exactly once, and always in an inventive and unconventional setting. Rhythm and movement are the keys to Kels' editing. Independent frames interact in precise choreographies. The absence of sound and music only underlines the powerful play between movement, intervals and unconventional duration and makes the musical qualities of cinematic language all the more tangible.

While editing Kels seeks the point at which the material and what he wants 'come together.' Fascinated by the paradox between the seeming randomness of movement in nature and the repetitive process that seems to characterize much of what takes place in the world of animals and human beings, Kels, in some of his films, imposes a metric scheme upon the non-staged events he shoots. Far from remaining simple schematic experiments or becoming overly mannered, his films become intelligent plays with order and chaos, repetition and change, expectation and the unforeseen, the old and the new. Worlds of contrast, tension and dialogue emerge as much on a symbolic level as on a cinematographic one, evoking a wide range of references and emotions, and often showing a subtle sense of humor.

Kels consciously conceives major parts of his films in his mind, far away from the editing table. Although he keeps a Steenbeck at home, he feels it can become a dangerous and unproductive machine if used too extensively. The unusual character of his work stems from his ability to dismantle conventional filming and editing methods and from his talent for building a provocative non-narrative work in which frame, shot, and sequence deliberately refer to both reality and themselves (as more or less composed filmic entities) in an artful play with real and condensed time. He is in full control of his art and knows his material by heart. It is exactly his individuality and complete mastering of the creative process which allow him the necessary freedom to constantly develop his unique way of filmmaking. Having seen Kels' films the paradox of fiction and reality becomes all the more intriguing.

1981 Haystacks (2 min 1981)

Karl Kels' first film is a playful short piece comprised of shots of haystacks in the countryside. Quick repetitions of frames and the dance-like rhythm in which the frames are combined create an illusion of movement within the single shot in which no actual movement takes place, save for one passing car. The combination of different images in short sequences forces a new reality upon the haystacks, making them move in every possible direction. Short as it is, this debut already puts its finger upon some of the characteristics that have remained of great importance throughout Kels' entire work so far: the inseparable world of the single frame and time as an artistic controlling device.

1982 Condensation Trail (3' 24 min 1982)

Flashes of changing color (a result of the celluloid being slightly exposed during the changing of reels), mark the first movements of a plane's steady climb into the blue sky, leaving a condensation trail behind. This 22-second long shot is combined with black and white film, in which diagonal lines and parts of the image are cut out. Rhythm and repetition are essential; the lines in the two different types of film meet and part, merge and break up. The celluloid, though highly sensitive and fragile, displays a strong resistance when it comes to having parts of it cut out, a resistance reminiscent of the human emotions of anger and excitement, as the interplay between the black and white and the color parts shows an effective stubbornness. Though these effects may be highly controlled by the director, at the heart of Condensation Trail is an event which is unique and unstaged, and which is unlikely to ever repeat itself. The plane crosses the screen from the lower left to the upper right corner. Halfway on its journey, a bird flies into the frame and crosses the plane's condensation trail exactly at its very end, making a perfectly sharp diagonal as it slowly reaches for its lower right corner. Within the hasty and fragmented reality of the film, the bird's appearance suddenly displays a spacious and endless quality.

1983 Sluice (4'57 min 1983)

Six images of water are brought together in a composition in which rhythmical combinations of frames, presented in repetitive but slightly varying sequences, build up a silent yet dramatically developing performance. The individual images of water, either standing still, falling down, or collecting in the lower part of the sluice, are broken into small segments as if they were the founding notes of a piece of modern music. Again, qualities of time and movement prevail in the creation of a highly sensual cinema in which logic is replaced by a new order.

1987 Bowery/Fragment (7'08 min b/w 1987)

[MFJ ordering] [MFJ Special Ordering] In 1986 Kels received a fellowship that allowed him to study at Cooper Union in New York. During his stay there, Kels spent some six months at the Bowery in lower Manhattan. He began hanging out with the less fortunate who eke out an existence in cheap hotels or on the street, and became friendly with many of them. In the lives of the mostly male alcoholics who survive on open comradery and cheap alcohol, he discovered a rich unstaged world, which he slowly started to film. Bowery/Fragment is but a short fragment of what a final film on this subject could offer, yet it stands by itself and clearly bears the director's marks. Against the background of a run-down Prince Hotel we see men who pass time together, deliberately portrayed by Kels' clear eye for framing and detail, and yet whose acts and movements cannot be controlled.

1987 Rhinoceroses (8'43 min 1987)

It is at the end of this film that the rhinoceroses occupy center stage and perform mundane activities such as moving from left to right within their zoo pens. And it is right at the end of this that these archaic beasts will slowly and imperturbably cross the threshold of their cage, the door of which will have slid open mechanically. At that moment, gestures attain their intrinsic timelessness, with the camera recording what takes place in front of it in real time. This relative calm for the spectator (nothing is more peaceful than a rhinoceros in its everyday life) contrasts in a spectacular way with the previous frantic minutes. As his work is based upon using time freely, the filmmaker has done his utmost to organize sequences of images according to an acceleration which is external to the animals in the zoo, but coherent within the process of cinematographic creation. Playing with two spaces in which they are enclosed (one equipped at the back with a door which lifts open vertically, the other with two side doors which slide open horizontally), Karl Kels makes the spectator laugh by giving the film aspects of the burlesque and absurd. He makes staccato shots, edits in close sequence, and animates the rhinoceroses much as an animation filmmaker would do using pixillation. In pure fiction that is only possible thanks to the cinema, these rhinoceroses and their setting are literally exhausted by the playful manipulations of the filmmaker before once again finding, in our company, the sort of peacefulness they need to leave the stage.

1991 Starlings (5'45 min 1991)

It is night. The moon is shining. A static camera captures a huge flock of starlings searching the sky in circular movements. It is not clear how long Kels had been standing there before he turned on his camera; the event as such can only have come as a surprise to him as well. At first the starlings are hard to identify. Having deliberately edited frames coming from different generations of the original print in a certain metrical order, without changing the actual chronology of their movement, Kels has the constantly changing shapes of the birds dissolve in the rough grain of the celluloid. Once again a technical weakness of the celluloid forms the starting point of his visual enterprise. Shot on one reel without any interruption, the birds' flight gradually forms configurations of astonishing beauty. An immense sense of depth emerges as the starlings move against the background of the distanced moon, yet cross close by electric wires. Moths cannot resist the light and drop down just in front of the lens, and finally, also the starlings seem to take a last turn reaching down closer to Kels' camera just before his reel ends.

1993 Hippopotamuses (35' 1993)

It is a question of order or disorder, cleanliness or dirtiness. The main protagonists are hippopotamuses (a male, a female and a baby--a family?) and two painters and keepers in charge of renovating and cleaning their pen. There are two backgrounds to this scene. One wall closes off the space the zoo has allotted to these animals, but two doors that slide open sideways open into another space, a deep space, the cage no doubt, inside the building that shelters the animals. Another setting is perceptible at times, that of water in which the wall, the doors and the hippopotamuses are reflected. This film confronts the spectator with a double challenge. On the one hand, a subtle interlacing of rhythms which simultaneously reveal the movements of these majestic and indolent animals, a purely cinematographic work using editing in order to organize a different time-frame. On the other hand, the scenes filmed from the front and in a fixed position rely on the absolute indifference these hippopotamuses show towards Karl Kels. This set-up, fleshed out by purely visual matter (blacks and whites, shades, reflections), is a brilliant questioning of the vision of the spectator who is invited to look closely: a sort of primitive scene in which the eye is stimulated and provoked by a non-spectacle built up into a cinematographic event. This holds right up until the last shot of a little black bird which flies away, free of any cinematic hold.

Karl Kels Filmography
1981 Haystacks 1'57 silent
1982 Condensation Trail 3'24 silent
1983 Sluice 4'57 silent
1987 Bowery/Fragment 7'08 b/w silent
1987 Rhinoceroses 8'43 silent
1991 Starlings 5'45 b/w silent
1993 Hippopotamuses 35' silent 35mm

[MFJ ordering]

Printed in MFJ No. 30/31 (Fall 1997) Deutschland/Interviews

[MFJ Special Ordering]

Last revised on 12-8-97 by Isabel Pipolo

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